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Behind Enemy Lines: Talking smart spending with DRaysBay

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How does a small market team do so well?

Tampa Bay Rays v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

The next few weeks won’t be easy ones for the Tigers, and that all starts with a road trip to St. Petersburg to play a weekend series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Currently the Rays are on pace to make it to the postseason in one of the AL Wild Card spots (they trail the AL East-leading Yankees by 10 games), and they managed to have all this success without spending a ton of money.

We asked Ian Malinowski of our sister site DRaysBay about what it’s like to see a small market team do so well without breaking the bank, and how former Tigers prospect Avisail Garcia is doing these days.

BYB: The Rays regularly manage to field a pretty skilled, competitive team without spending a lot of money. What lessons do you think a rebuilding club like the Tigers could take from the way the Rays do business?

IM: The interesting thing about the Rays process has been an actual refusal to rebuild. While they haven’t made the playoffs since 2013, and have definitely stumbled in some of their seasons, they’ve entered each season with a realistic expectation of being competitive, targeting the 85-90 win mark and hoping for things to break right. But at the same time, they’ve been ruthless, at least recently, even DFA’ing and trading average major league players on seemingly affordable contracts if they have a way to replace those players at lower cost (either with younger upcoming players, or with cheaper free agents).

That pursuit of $/WAR efficiency has earned them few friends and many detractors, but it’s part of a life in a league composed of teams with unequal resources.

The one place where the Rays have spent money, though, is on the international free agent market, where they’ve both traded for slot allotment, and invested heavily in their scouting department. Those investments have paid off already in the form of Jose Alvarado, Diego Castillo, and the proceeds (Nick Anderson and Trevor Richards) from the Jesus Sanchez trade, and there’s much more international talent coming up in their highly regarded farm system. Getting top talent from the IFA market doesn’t depend on going through a bad stretch at the MLB level, and the return on investment is still very high.

The team is well known for their “Opener” strategy, but after trading their primary opener, Ryne Stanek, they seem to be moving more towards a standard pitching rotation. Was the opener a flash in the pan out of necessity, or something the team will continue to implement in the future?

The Opener is alive and well in Tampa Bay, and the Rays used it last Monday, with Diego Alvarado opening for Austin Pruitt. It might get used a little bit less down the stretch, though, based on the matchups and the availability of bullpen arms. With Stanek gone, the two pitchers in line for the opener starts are Castillo and Andrew Kittredge (who was actually the original opener for the Rays, but back when no one was paying attention).

We’ll probably see it less over the next couple weeks, because right now with all the pitching injuries the Rays have sustained, manager Kevin Cash literally has no long reliever on the major league roster. Castillo can go two innings if he needs to, and Kittredge can maybe go three innings, so Cash wants to see what he’ll get out of his starters before deciding how much to stretch those two.

Avisail Garcia, a former Tigers, may miss this series after some recent oblique tightness. When he was in Detroit fans were very excited about his future. What do you think he brings to the Rays, and how much will he be missed if the injury is worse than expected? (no jinx intended)

We love Uncle Avi! He may have gotten off on the wrong foot with Rays fans, with no fault of his own, for not being Nelson Cruz, who many fans wanted the Rays to target this past offseason, but by this point I think he’s won most of us over. He’s a streaky hitter, and always will be (because he doesn’t walk a ton, and so his production is based on ball-in-play results), but he’s settled as solidly above average, while also seeming like a good clubhouse presence on a young team.

More surprisingly, his defense in right field has been really good! Turns out, when healthy, Garcia is really fast, not just “really fast for a 250 pound man.”

With him out the Rays will miss both his defense--Austin Meadows is not a good defensive outfielder--and his right-handed bat. The team is dangerously short on good RHB, with Yandy Garcia also out and with Tommy Pham currently playing with a fractured hand (!).

Speaking of injuries, can you tell us who we might actually see this weekend for pitching, since Blake Snell and Tyler Glasnow are both still out. What can we expect from these guys?

Well, you’re getting the good ones. Friday should be Charlie Morton, the Rays biggest free agent signing ever, who has been even better than anticipated, and is in the running for American League Cy Young. Expect a lot of hard fastballs and sweeping curves.

On Saturday you’ll face Ryan Yarbrough, who is pitching better right now than at any other point in his career. He’s coming off an appearance in Seattle where he was removed from the game with one out away from a complete game shutout. Yarbrough has pitched after an opener in the majority of his appearances, but don’t be fooled. He’s a legit major-league starting pitcher, and a real control artist, with a high-80s fastball, and he’s a master at messing with hitters timing, with a mid-80s cutter, a low-80s changeup, and a sweeping mid-70s “slider.” He uses all of the plate.

Sunday’s game will be the newly acquired Trevor Richards (who’s currently in Triple-A trying to get stretched out to start). He’s capable of a good outing over a handful of innings, and if the first two starters are able to save the bullpen, Cash won’t be shy about limiting exposure, but this is the game Rays fans won’t feel very confident about.

What, for you, has been the most surprising or exciting part of this season?

Definitely been surprised and excited by just how good the pitching and defense has been. I knew going in that they had a lot of arm talent (but with question marks), some good defenders (and some not so good), and aggressively innovative ideas about how to use them (famously the Opener, but more importantly a general willingness to limit the exposure of their pitchers to the third and fourth time through the order, and a real plan about how to build a bullpen to cover those extra innings). But that’s translated to the best ERA in the American League, and the best FIP and xFIP in all of baseball. Earlier this season, they were on pace for a historically good ERA-, but as the injuries mounted they fell off the pace.

Even if the 2019 Rays aren’t going to go down as a top-5 run preventing team in modern baseball, that side of the ball has still been a blast to watch.

Do you think the Rays can maintain their current pace and secure a wild card spot this postseason?

I do! They’re currently in the wild card, playing well, and have a majority of their games left this year against teams with schedules at .500 or below (sorry Detroit, please don’t sweep). And they should get significant reinforcements in September, with Snell and Glasnow potentially coming back. And because of the way they’ve already handled their pitching (early hooks), they’re ready to take advantage of the expanded September rosters.

The Rays have a stocked farm system, can we have some of them? If not, who do you think are the most likely candidates to be protected from the Rule 5 draft?

My colleague JT Morgan gave a good breakdown of the 40-man roster crunch the Rays were facing before the trade deadline, that you can read here if you want all the details. They were active in trades, moving relievers Adam Kolarek and Ian Gibaut, hitting prospects Jesus Sanchez , Joe McCarthy, and Nick Solak, and often-injured infielder Christian Arroyo in trades that all had a significant 40-man roster management component.

That made, some space, but there could still be difficult decisions, depending on how the winter goes. Infielder Vidal Brujan and catcher Ronald Hernadez will definitely be protected. I think SS/CF Lucius Fox--a great athlete with speed to burn, but who hasn’t quite turned the corner into a plus defender yet, and who may never hit for power--will be protected as well, but not everyone around here is so sure. I also think Jake Cronenworth, a breakout two-way player (SS and RP) will get the 40-man add.

If you’re looking for someone to steal, there’s the eternally passed over Kean Wong, who’s hit about as well as one can in Triple-A. I might give a look to Garrett Whitley, who has loud tools but hasn’t played enough baseball. He needs reps after missing time to injury, so it wouldn’t be good for him to be hidden on a MLB roster for a year, but I could see a team giving it a try.


Thanks so much to Ian for taking the time to chat with us. If you want to read the questions he had for us, they’re up on DRB right now, so head over there. You can read more of Ian’s work while you’re on the site!